Kabul town was ours to take—
Blow the trumpet draw the sword—
I'd ha' left it for 'is sake—
'Im that left me by the ford.
Ford, ford, ford o' Kabul river,
Ford o' Kabul river in the dark!
—"Ford O' Kabul River"
Ttckpt Province, Barwhon V
1625 GMT November 23rd, 2003 ad
A burst of machine gun fire took the lead Posleen in the chest. The orange tracer of the fifth bullet drifted past the crumpling creature as steaming yellow blood stained the purple ferns of the undergrowth. The company of centaurlike aliens began to spread to either side as the remainder of the humans opened fire. The ford behind the humans echoed a liquid chuckle, as if laughing at the poor soldiers called to their deaths by its aberrant presence.
Captain Robert Thomas peered through the ever-present mists and whispered a call for fire as the Posleen deployed. His company was heavily outnumbered by the approaching Posleen battlegroup and low on soldiers, ammunition and morale. But they had also dug in on the soggy, forward side of the ford. The unit had a choice of fight or die. Crossing the ford with the Posleen at their backs would be a losing proposition.
It was a desperate position to take, almost suicidal. But unless someone got their thumbs out and reinforced them, the surprise strike by the Posleen would turn the flank of the entire Fourth Armored Division. In a situation like this Thomas knew his duty. Place his soldiers on the deadliest ground possible; when the choice is death or death, soldiers tend to fight the hardest. It was the oldest military axiom in the book.
The heavy vegetation of Barwhon had prevented engaging the centaurs at maximum range, so it was the sort of point-blank shoot-out that favored the Posleen. Thomas grunted in anger as his Second platoon's machine gun section was taken out by a wash of plasma fire, then snarled as the first God King made an appearance.
There were several ways to distinguish the God Kings of the Posleen from the combatant "normals" that made up the bulk of the Posleen forces. The first thing was that they were larger than normals, being about seventeen hands at the complex double shoulder versus the normal's fourteen to fifteen hands. The second thing was that they had high feathery crests running along their backs and opening forward like the ceremonial headdress of the plains Indians. But the main way to distinguish a God King from its bonded normals was the silvery ground-effect saucer it rode.
The device was not only transportation. A pintle-mounted heavy weapon—in this case a hypervelocity missile launcher—bespoke its prime reason for existence. In addition the vehicle mounted a mass of sophisticated sensors. Some God Kings used them actively, others passively, but the sensor suite was just as dangerous in its own way as the heavy weapon. Denying information to the enemy is the second oldest lesson of warfare.
However, in the last year of give-and-take in the jungles of Barwhon V humans had learned a few lessons about fighting God Kings. All the heavy weapons of the company redirected their fire to the forces around the saucer as the company's sniper targeted the God King and its vehicle.
Well before the units had left the blue-and-white ball of Terra, the American military had begun modifying their weapons to deal with the changed threat. First the venerable M-16 had been replaced with a heavier caliber rifle capable of stopping the horse-sized Posleen. In addition there had been changes to the sniper force.
Ever since snipers were reactivated as a position in the 1980s there had been debates about the appropriate standard rifle. The debate was ended by a special operations group deployed to Barwhon. The only reason that any of the reconnaissance team survived to see the green hills of Earth was the use of a .50 caliber rifle by the team's sniper.
The debate went on over the use of bolt-action versus semiautomatic. However, that was a debate for military philosophers. The M-82, the semiautomatic "Murfreesboro Five-Oh," had become the weapon of choice.
Now SP4 John Jenkins demonstrated why. He had chosen to set up on a slight mound behind the company and across the gurgling ford from the likely direction of contact. His coverall, sewn all over with dangling strips of burlap, made him invisible to the naked eye. However, the God King's sensors would not be fooled. To avoid having the sniper detected, the company had to cover his actions with mass fire.
As the M-60s of the three line platoons took the forces around the God King under heavy fire the specialist triggered a single round from the thirty-pound sniper rifle. His two-hundred-pound body rocked from the recoil and the saturated ground under him squished in shock.
The round that the rifle used was essentially the same one used by the time-honored M-2 .50 caliber machine gun. Three times the size of a .30-06 round, it had a muzzle velocity normally associated with antiaircraft cannons. A fraction of a second after the recoil shoved the heavy-set sniper backwards, the armor-piercing bullet struck the saucer to the left of the pintle base.
The Teflon-coated tungsten-cored bullet penetrated the cover of an innocuous box at the God King's feet. Then it penetrated the slightly heavier interior wall. After that it passed through a crystalline matrix. It would have passed entirely through the matrix but its passage had disturbed the delicate balance of the power crystals that drove the heavy antigravity sled.
The power crystals used a charge field to hold molecules in a state of high-order flexion which permitted tremendous energy to be stored by the crystals. However, the flexion was maintained by a small field generator embedded deep in the matrix. When the dynamic shock of the bullet shattered the field generator, the energy of the crystals was released in a blast equivalent to half a ton of high explosives.
The God King vanished in a green actinic flash along with better than half his company as the shrapnel from the shattered saucer washed outward. The fireball consumed the two dozen remaining senior normals immediately around the saucer and the blast and shrapnel killed better than a hundred and fifty more.
The first volley of cluster ammunition artillery seemed almost anticlimactic to Captain Thomas. The next wave of Posleen disagreed.
* * *
"Echo Three Five this is Pappa One Six, over," Thomas whispered hoarsely. The past two hours had been a blur of charging Posleen, hammering artillery and dying soldiers. He felt that they were about done. He blew on his hand to warm it and stared out at the battlefield. The slope down to their position was littered with Posleen corpses but the damn horses just kept coming. As usual, there was no way to tell how many more there were—aerial reconnaissance was a distant memory in the face of the God King sensors and weapons. But there were at least two thousand scattered in front of his company. The bare hundred soldiers he had brought to the table had destroyed twenty times their number.
However, the horrific casualty ratios were beside the point. He was down to less than a reinforced platoon and the next push should slice through them like a hot knife through butter. The problem with fighting the Posleen was rarely killing them; the problem was killing enough of them to matter. Unless the promised reinforcements arrived he was going to have destroyed his whole company for nothing. Having been on Barwhon since the first day the Allied Expeditionary Force arrived, the captain could handle killing his entire company. It had happened before and it would happen again; the unit had had two hundred percent turnover in personnel in the last year. But it irked him when it was for nothing.
He dropped back into his water-filled foxhole. The cold, viscous liquid came up to his waist when he sat on the bottom. He ignored the discomfort—mud was as common on Barwhon as death—slid another clip of twenty-millimeter grenades into his AIW and called brigade again. "Echo Three Five this is Pappa One Six, over." No response. He pulled a steel mirror out of his thigh pocket and held it up where he could see the battlefield. The tired officer shook his head, put the mirror away and jacked a grenade into place.
He moved to a kneeling position and took a deep breath. With a convulsive lunge he popped up and fired a string of grenades into a set of normals that looked ready to charge.
In general, once their God Kings were killed the normals gave one burst for glory then ran. But some of them were more aggressive than others. This group was hanging around, exchanging some fairly effective fire and generally being a pain in the ass. Since most of his troops were scrounging ammunition, patching wounds and preparing for the next heavy assault they did not have time to deal with harassment. This would have been Jenkins's job, but he had bought it almost an hour before. So the company commander spun another group of grenades at the idiot centaurs, dropped back into his hole and switched out magazines. Again. Overhead flechette rounds flailed his hole for a moment and then stopped. Posleen normals were so stupid they had eclipsed all other ethnic jokes.
"Echo Three Five, this is Pappa One Six," he whispered into the microphone. "We are under heavy attack. Estimate regimental strength or better. We need reinforcements. Over." His company was good; after this long they had to be. But ten-to-one odds was a little much without prepared defenses. Hell, ten-to-one against the Posleen with prepared defenses was a little much. What was needed was a concrete or rubble wall and a moat filled with punji stakes. Not a company on the ass-end of nowhere and barely enough time to dig in. No mines, no claymores, no concertina and damn sure no support.
The radio crackled. "Pappa One Six, this is Echo Three Five, actual." At that moment Captain Thomas knew he was screwed. If the brigade commander was calling it could only mean the shit had truly hit the fan.
"Situation understood. The second of the one-ninety-eighth was ambushed during movement to reinforce you. We have at least another regiment moving uncoordinated in the brigade's rear area."
In the pause Thomas closed his eyes in realization of what that meant. With over two thousand Posleen in the brigade's vulnerable rear, there was no way they were going to be able to spare reinforcements.
"Your retreat route is impassable, Captain. There are Posleen all over it." There was another pause. The sigh at the other end was clear even over the frequency-clipping radio. "It is imperative that you hold your position. If we have time we can handle this. But if another oolt'ondar breaks in right now the whole salient will be in jeopardy." There was another pause as the colonel on the other end of the phone tried to find something else to say.
Captain Thomas thought about what it must be like to be on the other end of the phone. The brigade commander had been here as long as Thomas and they knew each other well; the commander had pinned on Thomas's first lieutenant and captain's bars. Now he was sitting in the heated tactical operations center, staring at the radio, telling one of his subordinate commanders that the situation had just murdered him. That he and his whole unit were nothing but centaur fodder. And that they not only had to die, but that they had to die as hard as possible. Die alone and forlorn in the cold purple mists.
Half the unit was veterans, the usual proportion in experienced combat units. After the first week of firefights most of the non-survivors were gone. As time went by the occasional veteran would be killed and the occasional newbie would survive. The two-hundred-percent turnover generally occurred in the newbies who did not learn fast enough. At this point in the battle Captain Thomas figured that most of the newbies had already bought it and those remaining were mainly veterans. That meant that they might just die as hard as brigade wanted them to.
He shook his head and stared up into the violet sky. He closed his eyes for just a moment and tried to conjure up the sky over Kansas. The smell of baking wheat and the hot, dry wind of the prairie. The blue bowl of the sky on a cool autumn day as the sky seemed to stretch to infinity. Then with a final sigh he switched the radio to the local frequency and keyed the mike.
* * *
Staff Sergeant Bob Duncan closed the sightless eyes of the captain and looked around.
The autoprojector of his helmet system sensed the tensing of his neck muscles and swiveled the viewpoint around the area of the ford. Target points and intelligence information—trickled deep into his eyes by tiny laser diodes—cascaded across his view unnoticed. Calculations of Posleen and human casualties flickered across the top of his view as the artificial intelligence that drove the armor calculated blood stains and damage assessment. The soft puffs of recycled air that drifted across his mouth and nose were, fortunately, devoid of smell. Nannites swarmed across his eyelids, automatically collecting the water that threatened to drown the vision tunnel.
The powered combat armor automatically adjusted the light levels so they remained constant. The resulting lack of shadows gave the scenery a flat look. After a year and a half of combat Duncan had become so used to it the effect was unnoticeable unless he took his armor off. Since that had last happened nearly six weeks before, "real" vision seemed abnormal.
The advancing Posleen forces had done their usual bang-up job of removing all the corpses from the battlefield. Since humans and Posleen were both edible, they considered humans nothing but tactical problems or rations. The Posleen word for human was "threshkreen." It translated more or less as "food with a stinger." Which made the captain's unmolested body all the more unusual.
Duncan picked up the stick thrust into the ground beside the officer. Duncan had seen one exactly twice before, both times when bodies of commanders were left unmolested. This time, however, the body was on a mound of dirt that must have taken some time to construct. Duncan examined the indecipherable writing on the stick for a moment then picked the stiffening corpse up in his arms. The body's weight was as nothing to the powered battle armor, light as a feather with the soul fled to some region beyond this blood-torn realm. He started trotting.
"Duncan," called his platoon sergeant, first noting the movement on sensors then turning to eyeball the retreating suit. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"
Duncan appeared deaf. He continued to trot back along the trail the suits had used to retake the ford. Here was where the Posleen regiment from the ford had made its stand. The gigantic trees of the Barwhon jungle were flayed, their branches stripped of leaves, massive trunks shattered from heavy-weapons fire.
There was where the last of the scattered Posleen regiment had been overrun. A final pile of bodies indicated where the normals piled on their beleaguered God Kings in a last-ditch attempt to save them from the advancing armored monsters. A pile of combat suits attested to their effectiveness when cornered.
There was where the suits had been ambushed in turn. A God King corpse—pooling yellow blood staining the ground—was sprawled across a shattered suit awaiting recovery. No miracles of modern technology for that trooper; the readouts of the armor showed the telltale signs of a penetration.
Once a Posleen penetrator round entered a suit it tended to stay inside, caroming around like a blender blade. The only sign of damage on the armor was a tiny hole. It still leaked red. Private Arnold was a newbie and with his pureeing the company of one hundred and thirty nominal suits was down to fifty-two functional. That fifty-two had been reduced to forty by the time the unit retook the ford.
Duncan continued on in the ground-eating lope of the armored combat suits. His mind was a blank, without purpose or desire, simply cruising on autopilot.
He finally entered the area of the brigade command. The scattered positions were already being reconsolidated. The damaged vehicles were under repair or being towed off as graves' registration teams moved around "taggin' and baggin' " the bodies of the dead soldiers. Each of the casualties was being fitted with a tag indicating name, location, unit and general nature of death; then the bodies were loaded into black plastic body bags for processing and burial. The cleanup crews would get to the swath of destruction from the armored combat suits in their own good time. The swath from the Posleen, of course, would not need them.
Duncan finally slowed as he neared the brigade's tactical operations center. He noted without caring the expressions on the faces of the MPs at the entrance and the platoon of troops dug-in around the command post.
The Galactic-supplied combat suits were made without any face shields; their visual repeaters took the place of that possible weakness. The MPs and security troops were faced with a featureless front of faceted plasteel that was impregnable to any Terrestrial weapon; a similar suit had survived a blast from a nuclear weapon. Although there were a few hypervelocity missile launchers in the area, there were none at the TOC. So there was no stopping this juggernaut unless reason or orders worked.
One of the MPs decided to try. She was either braver or more foolish than her fellow as she stepped out into Duncan's path and held up a hand like a traffic cop.
"Hold it right there, soldier. I don't care if you are Fleet, you don't have authorit—" Duncan never even slowed and the half-ton suit tossed her aside like a rag doll. Her fellow MP rushed to her side but other than a bruised rib and an assault on her dignity she was unharmed.
The TOC was three prefabricated structures hooked together. The doors were not designed to accommodate armored combat suits but that was moot. The door and frame resisted his suit as well as wet tissue paper and he continued through the briefing area and down a short hall to the commander's office. The startled brigade staff followed him.
The brigade commander had his door open. He watched the battle-scorched apparition stalk down the hall towards him without expression. The suit was covered in gouges from glancing hits and splattered with drying Posleen blood. It looked like a mechanical demon from some hell devoted to battle. As the commander recognized who was cradled in the arms of the suit his expression altered, becoming terrible and fey.
Duncan walked up to the commander's desk and gently set the captain's husk on the scattered papers. One of Barwhon's ubiquitous beetles hovered over the open mouth and terribly disfigured face. The mortal blow of a Posleen combat blade had opened the side of Thomas's head like an egg.
Duncan tapped a control on the forearm of the suit, activating the surface speakers. "I brought him home," he said.
The colonel continued to stare up at the angled slab of plasteel armor in front of his desk. The suit radiated heat from blows of kinetic energy weapons, and the stink of putrefying Posleen was thick and hot. He started to open his mouth to speak, but stopped and worked his mouth as if trying to clear his throat.
"I brought him home," said Duncan again, and laid the stick across the captain's body.
The symbol was one that had become universally familiar since the landing. Many were to be found among the rear area troopers, each supposedly authentic. In fact there had only been eight confirmed recoveries of them and the real ones were all accounted for, all carefully laid to rest with their owners. Between them the owners of the staffs had collected four Medals of Honor, three Distinguished Service Crosses and Silver Stars innumerable. The staff alone was guarantee of at least the Star. The colonel's hand went over his mouth and unmanly tears coursed down his cheeks at the sight of the ninth. He cleared his throat again and took a deep breath.
"Thank you, Sergeant," he said, tearing his eyes away from the warrior staff. "Thank you." The suit was swaying in front of his eyes and for a moment he thought it was an optical illusion. But it was soon apparent it was not. Duncan dropped to his knees with a rumble that shook the flimsy building and wrapped his arms around himself.
What was going on inside the suit was impossible to discern, but the colonel had a very good idea. He got up and walked around the desk, with a passing pat on the shoulder to his former subordinate now leaking red all over a report titled "Manpower Requirements FY 2003." The colonel crouched down and put his arm around the shoulders of the gigantic suit.
"Come on, Sergeant," he said as tears continued to course down his cheek. "Let's get you out of that suit."